The Dark and Gathering Sameness of the World

The title of this post appears twice in Canadian conservationist Terry Glavin‘s remarkable new book Waiting for the Macaws. It should have been the book’s title, but then a lot of people would have been put off and not be attracted to buy it, as I was initially, by the extraordinary picture of the endangered scarlet macaw on its black cover. The masthead of How to Save the World features macaws, so of course I could not resist the book.The book is ostensibly a set of seven stories of Glavin’s visits to seven far-flung areas around the globe, and their lessons about loss of biodiversity and cultural diversity. Glavin is careful not to preach, letting the stories convey the messages:

  1. Singapore, the story of tigers: How zoos hold out false promise of preserving biodiversity and, in addition to rendering most of their inmates insane, actually encourage the hunting of species to extinction by those who pursue the perverse ‘market philosophy’ that the fewer there are, the greater bounty they will command.
  2. Costa Rica, the story of macaws: How habitat loss, due to human agriculture, grazing, forest ‘products’, urban sprawl and even well-intentioned ‘parks’, is producing the fastest rate of species extinction in 65 million years.
  3. Russia, the story of fish: How illegal logging, illegal hunting, poaching and organized crime contributes to species extinction, starting on land and moving to the sea, and starting always with the largest species and moving to the smaller as the larger are exterminated.
  4. Vancouver Island, the story of cougars: How overpopulation, the pushing of people and their domesticated plants and animals into more and more remote areas in search of land, recreation and the spiritual need for wilderness, is wiping out species that had previously proved resilient to human encroachment.
  5. Norway, the story of whales: How the shift from subsistence to industrial harvesting of animals and plants, and the resultant shift of wealth and power from community to a remote, uncaring elite, is exterminating life in the sea.
  6. North America, the story of plants: How monoculture, the planting and husbandry of single engineered species in place of astonishingly diverse native fruits, vegetables, trees and farmed animals, has impoverished the food chain and led to a staggering reduction, first in plants, and then in the animals that lived on them, while making human food supplies immeasurably more fragile and vulnerable.
  7. Nagaland (India/Burma border), the story of hotspots (what PBS calls Living Edens): How a few dozen areas around the planet, many still offering both biological and cultural (including language, health, and other knowledge) diversity unmatched anywhere else, are now under siege from overpopulation, slash-and-burn agriculture, monolithic religions, ‘modernization’ and political corruption and interference.

The consequence of this is a “plague of sameness” and the loss of a distinct species every ten minutes. Some types of fruits and vegetables have lost 90% of their variants. An entire language disappears every two weeks. “We are not gaining knowledge with every human generation”, Glavin says, “we are losing it”. “All these extinctions are related…and the language of environmentalism is wholly inadequate to the task of describing what is happening…It doesn’t have the words for it”. Wherever he travels, he says, he finds the overwhelming majority of people are troubled by this loss of diversity, but at a loss to know what to do about it.

He unearths some interesting and astonishing facts in his research: Did you know that the Bronx zoo once proudly included aboriginal peoples in its ‘exhibits’? Or that Vladimir Putin abolished Russia’s environmental protection agency, forest service and conservation authorities?

“We are living in an age when we will at last discover the answer to the question that has haunted philosophers from time out of mind. It’s the question about whether humanity is capable of determining its own destiny. We should know that by about 2030. Certainly not much later…To find some parallel with the conditions of recklessness and excess that prevail in the world…you have to look at those desperate moments in human history, those moments just before everything falls apart.” He draws parallels in particular with the situation in Ireland just before the horrific potato famine.

In his prologue, he suggests that we may be headed for a titanic human struggle between two human ‘survival myths’, those of engineers and of naturalists. The engineers are those who fear and hate nature, who loathe complexity and diversity, who espouse the murderous ethic of the Puritans, who seek protection from fear and danger and death in genetic engineering, cryogenics, the homogenization and desensitization of humanity and culture, separateness from ‘nature as other’, immortality, and the extermination of all life that is not in the service of humans. The naturalists are those who suffer the grief of biophilia, who embrace complexity and celebrate diversity, whose ethic is one of sacred responsibility and respect for all life on Earth, who oppose technologies that increase ecological fragility and uniformity, and who accept that we are part of, not apart from, all life on our planet. The engineers, today, have the power and momentum, and are on the offensive; the naturalists still have the numbers but are always fighting a defensive, rear-guard battle. What makes the struggle so hard for the naturalists is that so many humans today know of no other life than an engineered, artificial one, and their proportion is growing. Now it is only ‘natural’ that they should fear a ‘natural’ way of living that they don’t know and cannot, any longer, even imagine.

In the meantime, the dark and gathering sameness of the world keeps increasing, as biological and cultural diversity wither. Ultimately, Glavin says,

This is a book about extinctions. It was written at the harsh dawn of an epoch that is coming to be called the Sixth Great Extinction. It is a time without parallel in the 65 million years that have passed since the end of the Cretaceous period. The world is again weary of empires. The dews still fall slowly, and the dreams still gather, but no matter the clash of fallen horsemen and the cries of unknown perishing armies in Yeats’s poem, we wonder, and we wait, and we go about our business, even as the sound of something terrible slowly approaches from across the hills.
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9 Responses to The Dark and Gathering Sameness of the World

  1. Lucky that Chaos and Chance are deciding the outcome.

  2. Mike says:

    Somethings missing, not quite sure, but it involves speaking of industrial age engineers instead of information age engineers, the Long Tail, spimes, etc.Even if all humanity ever accomplishes is sending a single self-sustaining probe into the universe, it’ll encounter orders of magnitude more diversity than we’ve lost.

  3. etbnc says:

    And therefore, Mike…..what?I can connect the topic of Dave’s post to my own life, and to my enjoyment and fulfillment of my life on this planet.It’s not clear to me how the existence of a space probe relates to the quality of my life.What am I missing?

  4. Mike says:

    etbnc: only the idea that it’s not about you.It’s been said humans are the missing link between animals and higher intelligence.

  5. Socratoad says:

    So Mike, what is this “higher intelligence” of which you speak.Have you ever lain down on your tummy on the grass on a warm spring day? There in a few small square centimetres, if one is observant, one can see more life forms than may possibly be present in all of outer space! However, even if this turns out not to be accurate it still is unhelpful that too many use the sterile fantasies of “space” as yet one more form of escapism.It has been my observation that those who stare into the heavens looking for answers are usually the very same people whom are most likely to be crushing a delicate blossom beneath their feet. We cannot go on befouling our nest here on earth while leaving the future of this planet to the tender mercies of those whom are already so far removed from reality, connectiveness and empathy for all species here on this planet, both sentient and non-sentient. For such people, are in my not so humble opinion, insane, and are in large measure exactly what will impede the search for humane intelligent answers to serious problems here on our home, earth

  6. etbnc says:

    Hmmm… Well, in my experience the participants in this sort of conversation contribute the ideas theyconsider most valuable, and most necessary for that time, that place, and that conversation. Sometimes the contributions are viewpoints that we suspect others do not yet see, and that wewish them to see.I can see what Socratoad sees because it overlaps my own view. But I can also acknowledgea viewpoint that isn’t all about me. I can imagine a situation in which I might assertthat the diversity of the rest of the universe matters more than extinction here. I can imagine that mostly because I felt that way, earlier in my life. (Which is sort of ironic, since it’s not supposed to be all about me.) I’m willing to try to see from another perspective, as best I can. But I’m not sure it works well for one participant to guess at another’s perspective and then to try to express it by proxy, based on four hints. If there’s something specific and valuable that we need to see, then perhapswe need more description of the view from that perspective. Cheers, y’all,

  7. Keith says:

    Fascinating post. I’ll have to read Glavin’s book. I work in food and agriculture policy, and came across an interesting author. Tim Lang in his Food Wars states that we are in a struggle between a technological (now moving from chemicals to biotech) approach to food production and an ecologically integrated paradigm. Sounds like a specific example of Gavin’s struggle between an engineering and a naturalist approach. Like Gavin, he argues that the technological paradigm has far more forces on its side, with ecological intergration fighting a rearguard battle.Food for thought.

  8. Declan says:

    Interesting, the prologue sounds reminiscent of the classic Deathworld novel (the first one in the trilogy) by Harry Harrison.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. Interesting discussion thread, inevitably challenged by the irreconcilability of what we sense (instinctively), what we feel (emotionally), and what we think (rationally). Our human language really is inadequate for this awesome task.

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